Kenya – The East African Plains: On the Ground and from the Air

In July and August of 1991 I embarked on my second “around the world” trip to conduct software training classes in Singapore, Kathmandu, New Delhi, and Nairobi. My itinerary included stops in Anchorage, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Calcutta, New Delhi, Mumbai, Nairobi, Frankfurt and New York before returning to Los Angeles. One part of the journey was especially memorable, the time I spent in Kenya, specifically the opportunity to visit Masai Mara National Park, on the border with Tanzania. After landing in Nairobi on an Air India flight from Mumbai, Mike picked me up and we drove to the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service where I would spend the next five days training the staff in the use of the latest GIS software. During the daily commute to the training facility, I observed the traffic, a chaotic mix of old buses, and small mini-vans called “Matutus”, all of them “packed to the gills”, with people “hanging from the rafters”! In the midst of this chaos, hundreds of pedestrians made mad dashes across the streets, deftly dodging the traffic. But the most unusual sight had to be the huge dump trucks hauling people in the back of the truck, even during the rain. What a ride it must have been, but at least it must have been cheap. One evening Mike suggested that we have dinner at the world famous “Carnivore Restaurant”, which is known for its extensive menu of wild game. I ordered the smallest plate, but even at ¼ kg it was huge, so I couldn’t imagine what the 1 kg plate must have looked like. When the plate arrived, it had a large assortment of meat, including Hartebeest, Zebra, Cape Buffalo, and Crocodile tail, which was especially tasty – sweet and tender.

Downtown Nairobi
Serena Lodge – Nairobi

At the end of the week, we left class early so that Mike and I could drive down to Masai Mara National Park for the weekend. Mike’s friends Monica, Bridgette, and Suzanne joined us, and soon we were on our way south through the “White Highlands” and the Great Rift Valley.

White Highlands

The girls had prepared all of the food, enough for a two week safari, though we would only be gone for two days. Slowly the highway climbed up to the top of the Kikuyu Escarpment at an elevation of 8,000 feet, through a region of lush forest, rolling hills, and beautiful tea plantations. Later we turned off the main highway on to a narrow, unpaved road that dropped steeply over 5,000 feet down the side of the escarpment to the floor of the Great Rift Valley – a much warmer and drier environment.

Great Rift Valley – Kikuyu Escarpment

The road had been built in the early 1940’s by Italian prisoners of war, and it had way more deep potholes than road surface. We stopped for petrol in the small town of Narok, and as we drove through the town, I made note of some very interesting landmarks that included “California Grocers”, “Side View Hotel”, and “Supa Dupa Dressmakers”. Leaving Narok we drove across vast expanses of grassland, dotted with scattered Acacia (Thorn) trees, and occasionally a large wheat farm. The sight of huge green and yellow John Deere combines harvesting grain, as herds of cattle and goats were being tended by Masai warriors nearby, was a stark contrast of cultures! All along the side of the road, we saw Masai warriors dressed in their traditional red cape and carrying a long spear – very primitive, yet proud and majestic.

Masai Warrior

Further on, the road deteriorated rapidly into a narrow dirt track, so we locked the hubs in 4WD. As we approached the National Park boundary, we began seeing more wildlife, including large herds of Gazelle, Impala, Kudu, Ostrich, and Cape Buffalo. When we arrived at the park gate, Mike handed the guard a letter from Dr. Andere, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, granting us entry without having to pay the park fee. Leaving the ranger station, we drove over a low hill and onto another dirt track that took us to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Research Station where the Aerial Survey staff were camped. Nearby, the British Army had a small camp, as they were working to renovate the research station. The KWS staff had their tents pitched in the tall grass beside a small grove of trees, overlooking the hills to the east – an ideal setting for a safari camp. We set up our tents on the edge of the circle and the girls promptly laid claim to the large tent, “assigning” Mike and I to the small alpine tent!

KWS Aerial Survey Camp
KWS Camp
Mike and our Alpine Tent

As dusk approached, the KWS staff had a roaring campfire going, so we joined them and grilled our marinated beef over the flames. It was delicious, along with the German potato salad and cold Tusker beer. Later in the evening, we shared our meager ration of Johnny Walker whiskey with the KWS guys around the campfire and related our experiences of being in Africa. As we talked, the fire burned slowly, and the stars above us shone bright in the night sky – the surrounding hills became beautiful silhouettes! (a magical evening) As I lay in my sleeping bag that night, I listened to the occasional sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. There was a guard (“escari” in Swahili) posted on duty throughout the night, just in case. Our camp was the only one permitted in the park, as all other visitors were required to stay in one of the park lodges, for safety reasons. Visions from the film “Out of Africa” filled my head that night.

The next morning, I was up with the sun – the early morning air was cool and the tall grass glistened with heavy dew. There were a few lingering sounds of Hyenas in the distance, and the surrounding hills were awakening under the early rays of the sun. Just then I noticed a troop of Baboons slowly making its way around the edge of the camp toward the grove of trees beyond. They scampered through the tall, wet grass, lead by a large male. Meanwhile, several youngsters played tag with each other and generally “harassed” the rest of the troop! It was a fun scene to watch, but one had to be careful, since Baboons can be dangerous if they feel threatened.

Troop of Baboons

By this time, Mike was also up, so we got the water boiling for coffee and waited for the girls to wake up, which finally came around 9am. Then it was off to Keekarok Lodge for breakfast, where the girls also took advantage of the washroom facilities.

Keekarok Lodge
Keekarok Lodge

After breakfast in the lodge, we headed west on the main track (aka dirt road) toward the Mara River, and along the way we spotted our first large herd of Wildebeest and Zebra. The scenery was very classic East African plains – high rolling hills and wide valleys, covered in tall grass and scattered flat-topped Acacia trees. It was beautiful! When we reached the crossing of the Mara River, we saw a large pool of Hippos, some of them stretched out on the river bank, sunning themselves. As we stood on the edge of the river watching the Hippos, a couple of Vervet Monkeys sat in the tree watching us.

Hippos in the Mara River
Vervet Monkey watching us

The Hippos periodically surfaced, blew their nostrils, and submerged again. All of a sudden, a great upwelling of Hippo manure appeared in the middle of the river – it just kept bubbling up and bubbling up – massive! It was a sight not easily forgotten. We bid farewell to the Hippos and headed north to Serena Lodge, with the 5,000 foot Olooyou Escarpment in the distance. The lodge was located atop a large hill overlooking the Mara River and designed to resemble a traditional Masai “Manyatta”, built into the side of the hill facing the river.

Serena Lodge

The view was spectacular as we sat on the terrace by the pool, with our cold Tusker beers. Below us, Elephants and Cape Buffalo grazed in the tall grass near the river – the vast East African plains stretched to the horizon. While we relaxed by the pool, a young Hyrax scampered past us on the rock ledge. It’s so strange to see one of them and know this overgrown Guinea Pig is the closest relative of the Elephant!

Hyrax

Later, we drove south, following the river on a little used dirt track, and stopped at a large bend in the river to have a picnic lunch beneath the lovely Acacia trees. That’s when we noticed two large Crocodiles “lounging” on the opposite bank, while a group of Hippos bathed in the water downstream – so we named the place “Crocodile Point”. Across the river we could see a large herd of Wildebeest in the distance and hear the faint sounds of their “snorting”.

Crocodiles in the Mara River

That afternoon, on our way back to Keekarok Lodge, we came upon a large, black-maned male lion and a lioness on the edge of the track, no more than 20 yards away. Further on, we encountered a group of tourist “combis” that had surrounded 6 – 8 lions asleep in the bushes. The lions paid no attention to the efforts of the tourists to get them to respond!

Lion and lioness
Giraffe on the plains

Back at the lodge, we sat on the veranda with cold Tusker beers in hand, and watched a group of young Vervet Monkeys steal some small jars of marmalade from one of the tables in the restaurant. At the same time, their “criminal activity” was captured on film and video by several tourist cameras – the monkeys were definitely not camera shy!

Monkey stealing marmalade

I took a short walk to a platform overlooking a large water hole, and along the way I discovered a camera bag that had been left by an Indian family I had passed earlier.

Boardwalk to Water Hole
Water Hole Observation Point

When I returned their bag, I found out they were from Palos Verde, California and the entire family of two adults and five children were on a month long safari to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary! (they had to be very wealthy to afford such a trip) To my surprise, their two teenage daughters didn’t like Indian food – it was too spicy! Before leaving the lodge, Mike and I bought a case of beer from the staff canteen to take back to the guys in the KWS camp. (they really appreciated the gift and it was soon gone) As we drove back to the camp, we could see some large grass fires burning on the northwest horizon. It was possible that the fires were set by the Masai to encourage the growth of fresh, new grass. As we pulled into camp, there was a red glow on the horizon that was reflected in the clouds above us. While we began to prepare dinner, a herd of Cape Buffalo grazed near the perimeter of the camp, reminding us that we were indeed in Africa.

Cape Buffalo
Wildebeest and Zebra
Thompson’s Gazelle
Hyenas stalking Hartebeest and Gazelle at a waterhole

After dinner, the British Army contingent paid us a visit from their camp nearby. They brought along an ample supply of rum and cokes, but alas, no ice. The entire camp joined in singing old songs around the campfire, accompanied by Mike on his guitar. It was a wonderful evening as night fell upon East Africa. I headed to my sleeping bag around midnight, since I had to be up before dawn the next morning for a hot-air balloon safari. (Mike continued partying with the army) During the night I was awakened a couple of times by the sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. Finally, I woke up before sunrise to a strange mix of African radio music and the sounds of Hyenas. I was excited about joining the balloon safari, but it took a bit of prodding to raise Mike so that he could drive me to the lodge. He was very hung over from the evening of rum, but we arrived at the site of the balloon launch just as the faint light of dawn broke above the horizon. We watched the raising of the balloons as a cool wind came out of the east. The final stage of the raising was the spectacular firing of all the gas jets – lighting up the sky with a brilliant yellow glow!

Final stage of balloon raising
Balloon raising

Then I joined a group from England and we lifted off at sunrise, slowly gaining altitude until we were silently floating a couple of hundred feet above the vast African savannah. A gentle breeze pushed us southwest over Masai Mara toward the border with Tanzania. As we rose higher in the sky, so did the sun, illuminating the plains with a soft orange glow. It wasn’t long before we saw a pride of lions stalking a small herd of Gazelle and Impala. (the tourist combis were stalking the lions!) As we slowly drifted over the grassy plains, the silence was amazing, broken only by the occasional sounds of animals below us or a short burst of the balloon’s gas jets. No one on board made a sound, except to quietly point out some animals.

Floating over the plains of East Africa
Balloons on the horizon
Migrating Wildebeest from above

The experience of silently floating 100 feet above the ground over some of the most productive wildlife habitat in the world was almost like a dream! (I had to pinch myself at times, just to make sure it wasn’t a dream) In general, the animals ignored us – at one point, a group of Waterbuck “jousted” with each other for the privilege of “soliciting” the attention of the females. The whole African wildlife scene played out before us, while we were a very transient audience, as it should be. As we neared the Tanzanian border, our pilot Chuck became concerned about finding a suitable landing site, before we ended up crossing the Sand River and entering Tanzania. He related one incident where two of his Kenyan crew were arrested by the Tanzanian border officials and spent two months in jail! But as we descended to 50 feet above the ground, Chuck spotted the track along the border and sat the balloon down with the greatest of ease, so that we did a light “touch and go” and then a gentle landing very near a Warthog den in an old termite mound. Luckily, the Warthogs were not at home! The crew had already arrived and rapidly deflated the balloon as we all climbed out of the basket.

Deflating the balloon
Kenyan crew

At the same time, other crew members were busy setting up tables and stools in the grass for our Champagne brunch. Soon the tables were overflowing with a dazzling array of fresh fruit, pastries, quiche, bacon, and eggs. The champagne glasses sparkled in the brilliant morning sunshine, and were soon filled with the chilled bubbly! We all raised our glasses to toast our pilot Chuck, and the two British couples on their honeymoon. The luxurious experience of enjoying delicious food and drink amid the vast African plains was almost indescribable, but definitely unforgettable!

Champagne brunch on the plains of East Africa

Following brunch, we all jumped into the waiting Land Rovers for a pretty rough ride back to Keekarok Lodge over a seldom used track in a remote corner of the park. Back at the lodge, we sat in a special area on the veranda reserved for balloon safaris, and shared our experiences over coffee, while Chuck filled out our official certificates, that included a list of all the animals we had seen that morning. Later, Mike and the girls arrived, and a few minutes after that, his friend Jack “buzzed” the lodge in his plane, having just returned from the morning wildlife aerial surveys. Jack was from Canada and the official pilot for the Kenya Wildlife Service. We all headed to the airstrip to meet him, along with the hope of joining him for a flight over the park. As it turned out, Jack was eager to take us up, so we climbed into the plane.

Boarding Jack’s plane

Jack was insistent that I take the front seat next to him so I could get the best photos, as I was the only one of the group with a camera! We taxied out to the runway and before we knew it, we were climbing into the bright blue African sky, headed northwest to find the great herds of migrating Wildebeest and Zebra, which number in the hundreds of thousands. As we flew over our campsite, we saw the herd of Cape Buffalo grazing nearby, along with a small group of Elephants.

KWS Campsite and Research Station

We continued northwest, and passed over herds of Gazelle, Impala, Giraffe and Zebra, before spotting the main band of Wildebeest. Suddenly the plane swerved and dropped abruptly as Jack maneuvered to avoid a collision with one of the huge vultures circling above us! The impact with one of these birds having a wingspan over 6 feet could be serious, even fatal! Jack was always on the lookout for them. Soon we began seeing long, sinuous black lines in the distance, stretching out across the savannah. These were the great herds of Wildebeest, migrating northward from the vast Serengeti plains of Tanzania, in search of new grass, following the annual short rains. As we neared the eastern side of the Mara River, Jack estimated there were well over 500,000 animals in our limited view! Then, as Jack circled around to the river, we saw a large number of Wildebeest scrambling down the steep bank and diving into the swift current, being swept downstream and emerging in a cloud of dust on the opposite shore.

Migrating Wildebeest crossing the Mara River
Mara River crossing

It was the exact spot where we had enjoyed our picnic lunch the day before. We wer

Mara River

e witnessing an event that had been repeated for thousands of years – magnificent! Jack took us down for an even closer look with a steep, banking turn, which was great for taking photos, but a bit rough on the stomach. As I clicked away with my camera, Mike finally lost it and had to grab the airsick bag – so much for his late night partying with the British Army! By now it was time to head back to the lodge, and Jack followed an old DC-3 to land at the airstrip. Mike and I bought another case of beer for the guys back in camp, and then began the drive back to Nairobi. Along the way, we passed three large trucks overturned on the side of the road, which wasn’t that unusual, since at times there was no shoulder, just a sharp two foot drop-off.

Overturned trucks

As we reached the main Naivasha – Nairobi highway, a light rain began to fall, so that by the time we got to the turnoff to Kijabe, the unpaved road looked to be quite muddy. We got out and locked the hubs in 4WD, but we were only able to advance about 300 yards up the steep muddy road before the SUV began sliding all over the road. As other vehicles ahead of us became stuck, Mike decided to abandon the shortcut and reverse back down the road – something much easier said than done! Everyone’s nerves were on edge as the vehicle slowly “slid” down through the soupy mud. At last we reached the main highway again to continue our journey to the city, albeit by a longer, though safer route. (however, by that time my boots were covered with sticky, red mud – a souvenir of our weekend trip perhaps) As we negotiated the heavily pot-holed highway, sometimes at a mere15mph, we passed through a small village and suddenly saw a man “dart” into the incoming traffic. He was almost hit three times, but continued chasing the mini-bus that had almost him! It was a really wild scene to watch, and probably happens almost every day. Slowly the road climbed the steep Kikuyu Escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, through a lush, green forested region with yellow-green tea plantations scattered amongst the forest. The region was known as the “White Highlands”, where the English colonials settled, having displaced most of the native Kikuyu people. (eventually, the resentment of the Kikuyu lead to the “Mau Mau Rebellion”, and finally the independence of the country)

The White Highlands

From the top of the escarpment we had spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley thousands of feet below, and in the distance were the legendary Ngong Hills, made famous in the film “Out of Africa”. At last we arrived at Mike’s house, unloaded our gear, and enjoyed a “hot-n-spicy” pizza at a local pizza parlor.

The next morning I awoke to the startling news of a military coup in the Soviet Union! It sort of made my training class seem somehow less important, but this was the last day of the class and everyone was looking forward to a small party to celebrate. I gave the office secretaries 1500 Kenyan schillings (about $40) to buy the food, and they cooked the entire meal in the tiny canteen kitchen. Later in the afternoon, we all gathered in the canteen to share a traditional Kikuyu meal called “Jama Choma” – a simple dish of boiled beef and vegetables, served with lots of bread and fresh fruit. (most Kenyans did not like spicy foods) During the party there were speeches by the managers of several departments, but people kept eating. Finally, at the end of the meal, Dr. Andere presented me with a very special gift – a gorgeous ebony carving of a rhinoceros! The party concluded with a class photo outside in front of the KWS headquarters. The next morning, I reconfirmed my airline ticket and went to the New Stanley Hotel to have a coffee in the Thorn Tree Café, just as I had done many years before. As I sat on the terrace, watching the action on the street, many fond memories of my trip overland across Africa in 1974-75 filled my head. A lot of things had changed in Nairobi, but there were still some familiar experiences that made my time in Kenya very enjoyable. Later in the afternoon, I joined Mike, Bridgette, and Monica for a visit to a special place called “Kazuri Beads”, where beautiful jewelry and ceramics were on display, all of which were handcrafted by young single mothers. The shop was part of Karen Blixen’s estate in the heart of the Ngong Hills, a lovely region of low hills, small villages, and green coffee and tea plantations – so reminiscent of the film “Out of Africa”.

Kazuri beads
Karen Blixen’s estate

After the customary British tradition of afternoon tea and biscuits, we returned to the city by way of Nairobi National Park. It was an amazing experience to see Zebra, Wildebeest, Lions, and Giraffe with the backdrop of Nairobi skyscrapers shining in the distance. Only in Africa! Arriving back in Nairobi, we joined Jack and his wife Daphne at their house for the “requisite” drinks before dinner, a long-standing custom with most “expatriates”. After dinner, we arranged to meet Jack at Wilson Airfield the next morning for an “air safari” to Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

As we took off the next morning, there was a heavy ceiling of clouds around 5,000 feet, but Jack flew a mere 100 feet above the ground for a real “bird’s eye” view of the country. In fact, we were often below the birds! On the way to Amboseli, we flew over dozens of Masai “Manyattas” – huts surrounded by thick high fences made from Acacia branches whose sharp thorns kept lions at bay so the cattle could be protected at night. It was a very effective building technique passed down through many generations of Masai. Occasionally we passed children who excitedly waved to us as they jumped up and down.

Masai “manyatta”

As we neared Amboseli, we began seeing long green stretches across the brown grassland. These were the “seasonal swamps” that result from the short rains. Flying over the swamps, we could see long, thin tracks that looked like “snakes” in the grass. Actually, they were made by Elephants wading through the swamps as they chomped on the tall, dark green grasses. From above, the Elephants looked more like giant pigs “wallowing” in the grass.

Elephants in the swamp – Amboseli National Park

After flying over the lodge, we turned southeast toward Tanzania and flew over a large lake that had formed in an ancient volcanic crater. Then Jack climbed through the thick clouds, up to 10,000 feet, in an effort to get a view of Mt Kilimanjaro, but the massive peak remained shrouded by the heavy cloud cover.

Mt Kilimanjaro in the clouds

As we descended, I recalled the memories from 1975 when I had climbed the mountain and saw the sunrise over the East Africa plains from the 19, 340 foot summit. Before long we were flying over Tsavo National Park, home to large numbers of Elephants and Rhino. Jack circled Kilaguni Lodge, landed at the airstrip, and taxied right up to the front door! The lunch buffet was served in the beautiful open-air restaurant overlooking a large water hole, where we watched all manner of wildlife come to take their daily ration of water. As we enjoyed the many delicious African dishes, we noticed several Baboons sitting on rocks in front of the restaurant.

Kilaguni Lodge – Tsavo National Park
Baboon at Kilaguni Lodge
Baboon “scouting” out the restaurant

Suddenly, one of them rushed forward and “charged” the table next to us. And just as quickly, the Baboon was on top of the table, “screeched” loudly, and grabbed a dinner roll from the plate of one of the ladies at the table! She jumped from her chair, but it all happened so fast that no one got it on film, despite the large number of cameras on hand. In order to combat the “Baboon attacks”, the restaurant staff carry sling shots, and the very sight of one would scare the devil out of the Baboons! One time, Jack “pretended” to have a sling shot and it was enough to scare them off. Having lunch while we gazed upon the plains and mountains of Tsavo, with the abundant wildlife that visited the water hole, was like watching a National Geographic film, but in real life! Eventually, it was time to leave the lodge and head back to Nairobi. Several children stood patiently on the edge of the airstrip, as Jack warmed up the engines, and as we took off from the red earth runway, they waved excitedly!

Children at Kilaguni lodge awaiting our takeoff

On the return route, we followed part of the Nairobi – Mombasa railroad main line. All of a sudden, Jack spotted a large bull Elephant standing a few feet from the tracks, as a freight train approached. We circled around for a closer look, just as the locomotive passed the huge pacaderm, missing it by only a few feet! It almost seemed as if the Elephant was “challenging” the locomotive – a poor contest at best!

Nairobi – Mombasa railway

As we approached the hills east of Nairobi, we could see they were extensively terraced fields of tea and coffee – the dark green color in beautiful contrast to the deep red volcanic soil of the Central Highlands. After having landed at Wilson Airfield, Jack and Daphne invited us for a BBQ at their house. It was a lovely way to end our air safari!

The next morning, I packed my bags for the return flight home. Mike picked me up at the hotel and said that he had arranged a short meeting with Dr. Richard Leakey, on our way to the airport. It was a very special event for us, and even though Dr. Leakey was a very busy man, he still gave us his full attention – we felt that he had made the time just for us. As we told him about the work of KWS using the new computer mapping software, he seemed genuinely interested and asked many questions. I left the meeting having felt his “presence” – clearly a brilliant and impressive man. Dr. Leakey gave us a National Parks pass and insisted that we drive through Nairobi National Park on the way to the airport. The drive afforded us the opportunity to once again see Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Gazelle and Ostrich, along with a huge Cape Buffalo that insisted upon walking in the middle of the road! We had to pull off to the side of the road to avoid a confrontation. The highlight of my final “wild game tour” came when we spotted a den of young Black Jackal pups sitting alongside the edge of the road. They were really cute as they sat and stared at us – sort of bewildered, but at the same time, overcome with curiosity!

Young Black Jackal pups

It was a perfect way to say farewell to Kenya and the East African plains. All too soon I was boarding Lufthansa flight 581 bound for Frankfurt, continuing on to New York and eventually Los Angeles. As I settled into my Business Class seat, I noticed a young boy walk up beside the Dutch man sitting across the aisle from me. The little boy began “adjusting” the man’s channel selector and volume control of his stereo headset while the man was reading. Suddenly the man looked up to see what was going on, and he laughed! As we flew over Sudan, Libya, Italy and Switzerland, I recalled all the fond memories of my most recent visit to Kenya, a place which remains among my favorite destinations in the world! (Stay tuned for more adventures in Africa!)

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